The Pearl Manuscript (British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x) is the sole source for the poems 'Pearl', 'Cleanness', 'Patience' and 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' and one of the most important texts in English literature. The unassuming appearance of the Pearl Manuscript belies its incalculable importance to our knowledge of English literature.
The Pearl Manuscript: Charming Full-Page Miniatures for an Excellent Content
Modest in format, written in a small but distinctive hand and decorated with a series of charming if unaccomplished full-page illustrations, the manuscript displays none of the gaudy grandeur of the great illuminated books in the celebrated royal and ducal collections.
Instead, it exudes a quiet authority more suited to private study and reflection. In this respect it is, perhaps, curiously appropriate that these pages represent the sole extant source of four poems – two of them undisputed masterpieces of early English literature – which bear witness to a remarkable flowering of literary creativity in the late fourteenth century.
British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x survived near-destruction and long oblivion before undergoing a belated resurrection and rise to prominence.
Like the equally famous manuscript of Beowulf, the Pearl Manuscript narrowly escaped the fire which in 1731 ravaged the library bequeathed to the nation by the antiquarian Robert Cotton (1571–1631) and resulted in the permanent loss of a huge quantity of medieval writing.
Yet it remained largely unnoticed until 1839, when its most famous poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, was edited and published alongside a number of other Gawain romances, followed a quarter of a century later by Pearl, Cleanness and Patience – which appeared as the first volume issued by the newly created Early English Text Society.
First Poem: Pearl
The manuscript is informally named for the first work it contains: Pearl is a complex allegorical poem which recounts the vision of a bereaved father, who falls asleep in a garden and is spirited off to the Terrestrial Paradise; here he engages in dialogue with a beautiful maiden who answers his questions with Christian doctrine and ultimately reveals the New Jerusalem to him.
The sophisticated rhyme scheme and system of alliteration deployed in the poem, and the multi-layered symbolism of its central image – the ‘pearl’ ostensibly stands for the narrator’s dead child, but in the course of the dialogue acquires spiritual and doctrinal significances which defy simplistic interpretation – confirm this as a literary work of the highest order.
Second Poem: Cleanness
Pearl is followed by two imaginative retellings of biblical stories. Cleanness is a didactic poem which focuses on three well-known episodes from the Old Testament – the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Belshazzar’s Feast – in an exploration of the notion of ‘cleanness’ as the state to which humankind must aspire for salvation.
Though it shares an obvious affinity with the homily form, Cleanness possesses a narrative drive and poetical sophistication which elevate it far above a mere literary sermon.
Third Poem: Patience
It is followed by Patience, which similarly concentrates on a central, abstract idea – ‘patience’ here denoting acceptance of misfortune and the exercise of self-restraint – in a staggeringly original reworking of the tale of Jonah and the Whale.
The concision and simplicity of the biblical narrative give way to an expansive treatment which is by turns terrifying and comic, and includes an entertaining and wholly original sixty-line description of Jonah in the Whale’s belly.
Fourth Poem: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Cotton Nero A.x concludes with its most famous work, one whose unchallenged status as an early English masterpiece makes the manuscript’s long obscurity seem unfathomable to readers today.
The tale of Sir Gawain’s acceptance of the Green Knight’s challenge – to behead him, on condition that he submits to the same fate a year and a day later – and his subsequent journey, in which his adherence to the chivalric code is sternly tested, is familiar to readers across the world, through the celebrated editions and translations of J.R.R. Tolkien and Simon Armitage among others, as well as numerous adaptations for film, television and opera.
The poem’s seamless combination of serious moral themes, national mythology and unforgettable characterization – the Green Knight himself is at once terrifying and sympathetic, yet ultimately resistant to interpretation – have made Sir Gawain and the Green Knight one of the best known of all Arthurian romances.
An elusive author: the "Pearl Poet"
The formal characteristics shared by the four poems contained in Cotton Nero A.x, such as versification and use of alliteration, and their deeper thematic qualities – most remarkably, the way in which they take a central, abstract idea or image and explore it with subtlety and intensity – have led to a broad consensus that these works were composed by a single, anonymous author, generally referred to as the ‘Pearl poet’ or ‘Gawain poet’.
His identity has been the subject of extensive scholarly debate: the manuscript is written in a West Midlands dialect which may reveal as much about the scribe as it does the author, while competing theories locate him in London or Cheshire, and argue for English or Scottish origins.
The engaging naivety of the twelve illustrations in the manuscript has led some scholars to suggest that the author is also the artist. All that can be stated with certainty is that he wrote in the last third of the fourteenth century, a period of intense poetic activity which coincided with the reign of Richard II (1377–99).
The rest must remain, for the present at least, a tantalizing mystery.
- Olsen, Kenna L. Cleanness: A Diplomatic Edition with Textual, Codicologial, and Paleographical Notes. Publications of the Cotton Nero A.x. Project 1. Calgary: Cotton Nero A.x. Project, 2011.
- Folio Society website
We have 1 facsimile edition of the manuscript "Pearl Manuscript": The Pearl Manuscript facsimile edition, published by The Folio Society, 2015